Inside Sports Business: Relocate an original franchise? Expand the league? MLS mulls doing both at once

Usually in pro sports, a league either busies itself trying to rectify weakness by relocating an existing team or it plays up its strengths by adding expansion franchises. Leagues never do both at the same time, given the contradictory approaches and messages they would send.

Inside sports business

TORONTO – It was a scene typically not seen in professional sports.

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber stood at the podium of a hotel ballroom giving his annual “State of the League’’ address Friday in which he simultaneously talked up an aggressive expansion path while defending the right to relocate a flagship franchise. Usually in pro sports, a league either busies itself trying to rectify weakness by relocating an existing team or it plays up its strengths by adding expansion franchises.

Leagues never do both at the same time, given the contradictory approaches and messages they would send.

But there’s nothing typical about MLS, its business model or the outcomes of its decisions to this point. It’s a league where television ratings have struggled to surpass even the WNBA’s, yet where stadium crowds rival the NFL in places. A league where franchise values continue to soar, despite the fact more Americans watch English Premier League television broadcasts than they do the domestic circuit.

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By that standard, it was business as usual for MLS when, ahead of its showpiece championship, the assembled media wasn’t asking much about the finalist Sounders or Toronto FC squads. Instead, their questions to Garber were mostly about whether the Columbus Crew would be relocated to Austin, Texas, before the 2019 season.

“It’s not the league’s decision,’’ Garber told reporters. “It’s the league’s approval of an owner decision to determine whether or not moving out of Columbus is something that makes sense.’’

Crew owner Anthony Precourt bought the team from the Hunt family in 2013 and negotiated the right to relocate. After claiming losses of $40 million since, he began exploring relocation to Austin this year and talked openly about moving if a downtown-stadium solution in Columbus, Ohio, failed to materialize.

The whole thing has become a public-relations nightmare for the league. The Crew went on a playoff run and nearly upset Toronto to reach the final against Seattle before a late Jozy Altidore goal spared the league from…

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